Seven-year-old me loved when adults would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I had my answer ready: the sixth Spice Girl.
Obviously, that didn’t happen.
I did, however, become a lot of other things: pizza girl, mall employee, office assistant, resident assistant, tour guide leader, unpaid intern and, finally, professional writer and editor.
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Get started with a free financial assessment.
In the years since I started my first job at 16, I’ve held a lot of different titles—which is why I wasn’t surprised to learn that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, most young workers hold an average of 6.3 jobs between the ages of 18 and 25.
Like many of my peers, I spent my fair share of summers and weekends slaving away at part-time jobs long before I ever landed a full-time gig. Looking back, it’s clear to me that these five positions (however small) helped prepare me for my current career and life as a financially independent adult.
1. Food Service
One week after I turned 16, I donned a blue polo shirt and joined my older brother at the local Domino’s Pizza. He showed me the ropes, and before long I was taking orders, addressing complaints from unhappy customers, organizing delivery bags for drivers and even tossing dough like a pro. Best of all: I had access to free pizza. So what if it had gone cold by the end of the night?
Despite the freebies, the job was by no means glamorous. I came home covered with cornmeal and pizza sauce. The pay wasn’t great (just above minimum wage), but the modest checks that I picked up every two weeks made me a more conscientious consumer. For the first time, I knew what it felt like to make and spend my own money. But the biggest change in my money habits came in the form of tipping anyone and everyone who had a hand in my food service—especially pizza delivery drivers.
2. Public Service
For four summers, I worked in the public records office at my local sheriff’s office. It was a solid gig for a new high school graduate: I didn’t have to come home smelling like pepperoni, all of my weekends (and evenings!) were free, and, best of all, the pay was better.
As I learned to handle the slight bump in my monthly budget, I also had a chance to play witness to the minutiae of how the outcomes of annual budget meetings affected the lives of others—and it wasn’t always pretty. The Clay County Sheriff’s Office is the sixth-largest employer in my Florida hometown. When rumors about budget meetings circulated at the water cooler, it wasn’t just my pay that was on the line. Neighbors, friends’ parents and my own mother worked there too.
When the recession hit, hiring freezes were implemented. Raises stopped. In 2011, salaries were cut by 3%. Despite the tense financial atmosphere, I was amazed at how the CCSO employees banded together to do the best job they could with the limited resources available to them. My summers in the records office taught me more about how spending works on a broad level—and how it affects my everyday life—than any government class ever could.
As an employee of American Eagle Outfitters, I loved making money by selling clothes to high school friends when I was home for the summer. I also enjoyed the employee discount ... perhaps a little too much.
One day, I noticed that all the tank tops, cardigans and hoodies I peddled to customers looked awfully similar—year after year. After spending countless hours with a roll of markdown stickers, I learned just how fluid retail prices can be. Now that I’m no longer a member of the retail army, I rarely buy anything at full price. As for those credit cards that I used to eagerly tell people about? Take it from me: You’re probably better off without them.
The paychecks gave me just enough to pay my bills. Most importantly, I learned the value of networking.
4. On-Campus Jobs
Most students at Stetson University in Florida fell into one of two categories: those who came from families that could afford the private liberal arts school’s tuition, and those who did not. I fell into the latter category.
Luckily, scholarships and $20,000 in federal student loans (which I’m happily repaying) allowed me to significantly bring down the upfront cost of each semester. Since I deferred payments for my first year in the real world, my balance is only slightly smaller today than it was three years ago—but now that I’m making full payments each month, the balance is steadily shrinking.
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I also qualified for a work-study permit, allowing me to work in different departments on campus. One semester I was an office aide in the Career Services Office. I became a resident assistant, which granted me free room and board in exchange for a few nights of work each month. Another year I worked in the admissions office as a tour guide. The paychecks gave me just enough money to pay my own bills. Most important, I learned the value of networking and maintaining those connections—to this day, I still turn to my first editor at the school newspaper for professional advice.
5. Unpaid Internships
My first real taste of life as a professional writer came on the first day of my journalism internship at Orlando Magazine. In exchange for three of my mornings each week, I received course credit to complete my journalism minor and a portfolio of published clips to take with me after graduation.
The internship put a serious dent in my budget for last-semester shenanigans. I was spending an additional $50 a week in gas alone to make the 80-mile, round-trip drive each day, and my Easy Mac lunches looked nothing like the mouthwatering food photos that peppered the pages that I edited. But all that work paid off: Within a year of graduation, I was offered a full-time position at Jacksonville Magazine. In retrospect, those tight weeks eating PB&J sandwiches were worth it.
Those experiences also taught me a valuable career lesson: It’s important to help the younger professionals coming up behind you. Once I transitioned from being a former intern to the internship supervisor at the magazine, I realized how much time, attention and support my former editors had poured into my internship experiences. I made it a point to give my interns projects and assignments that would help them learn and grow, just as my supervisors had done for me. I still keep in touch with a few of my former interns. I hope that, one day, they’ll do the same.